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Duncans turn passion for art into major collection; In their pursuits, the couple master the art of living

July 28, 2019 1 comment

Duncans turn passion for art into major collection 

In their pursuits, the couple master the art of living

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

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Robert and Ksren Duncan

 

When it comes to visual art, there are institutions devoted to its display and then there are Karen and Robert Duncan. Married 50-plus years, the Duncans are serious art collectors whose patronage extends to individual artists, museums, artist residencies and cultural endowments.

The private contemporary collection cultivated by the couple is notable not only for its size (2,000-plus works), but also its” high quality and stylistic diversity,” said Flatwater Folk Art Museum director George Neubert. “I’ve been able to visit numerous private art collections across the United States and Europe,” said Neubert, formerly director of the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln, “and many are fantastic. But often they have the same 25 artists. A lot of collections look a lot alike. This does not have that look because of their unique selection and the way they go about it.“Eclectic” is how the Duncans  describe their art trove that ranges across mediums with a strong three-dimensional object emphasis. Neubert joins other veteran art world professionals familiar with the holdings in saying the collection has “national significance.”

Unlike most collections that feature work by a particular artist or cohort, the Duncans have assembled work by many artists spanning the contemporary art scene both geographically and stylistically.

“The only thing they all have is our personal interest,” Robert Duncan said with wife Karen nodding approval beside him in the kitchen of their Lincoln home. “They reflect our personality and who we are.”

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right?” Karen asked rhetorically.

Where some collectors retain a consultant to advise selections, the Duncans trust their own instincts. They can’t conceive someone choosing for them.

“That’s no fun.” Karen said.

They also can’t relate to art as a commodity

“We never buy art for investment. Lots of people do, but we don’t,” she said. “We buy art for our own pleasure. Some of our art has increased in value. But we never bought it for an investment. We see something and we have to have it – because we love it.”

Similarly, they don’t purchase a work just to fill a niche.

“We never buy art with a place in mind,” Robert said. “We buy the piece because we love it and we find a place for it or we don’t.”

They generally purchase art from galleries, sometimes directly from artists and other times at auction. The pair travel far and wide visiting museums, galleries, auction houses and artist studios. On their journeys, which have taken them as far as India and China and to the art capitals of the U.S. and Europe, they operate as a team.

“Collecting art is always a joint effort,” Robert said. “We agree on the pieces we’re going to buy 99.9 percent of the time. We won’t buy anything of consequence unless we both agree.”

“If we don’t agree on it,” Karen said, “then we’ll go look at something else.”

“Our tastes have developed together. Forty years is a long time,” Robert said of their collecting experience.

By now, they share the same discriminating eye for what they feel has merit. But they don’t always get it right.

“We’ve made a lot of mistakes, too,” Robert said, “but we get better and better at it. I think both of us have got a really good eye now to collect good art.”

Their alignment is uncanny. “If there’s a roomful of art, he’ll walk around, and I’ll walk around separately, and we find we have the same piece in mind,” Karen said.

While some collectors keep their art out of sight, under close wraps, the Duncans enjoy sharing their treasures with others. When word spread of their collection, they began fielding requests from university art departments for tours. Other groups followed suit. Then, when the couple built an art repository that doubles as their residence, they received overtures from architectural and design schools. Today, the Duncans or their in-house curator Anne Pagel accommodate private tours as schedules allow.

The couple frequently loan out works for exhibitions at museums and galleries.

“Things move all the time,” Karen said. “They’re loaned out all over the place. I don’t worry about them, but I do miss them. You have to have pieces that travel easily. Some pieces are impractical to loan. They’re just too big or too difficult to ship, so they’re here permanently.”

“Sometimes we’ll go for a show (featuring their work). It’s fun to see people experience it,” Robert said.  “And to talk about when and why you bought it,” Karen added.

To share more of their art, the couple developed Assemblage gallery in downtown Lincoln. It’s open only by appointment. To bring art to their hometown of Clarinda, Iowa, they opened the Clarinda Carnegie Art Museum, whose exhibitions include work by artists they collect,

The couple’s art adorns the Lincoln headquarters of Duncan Aviation, the national business jet service and supply company Robert Duncan took over from his father Donald. Robert’s son. Todd Duncan, leads it today. The family-owned company has now reached four generations with grandsons following in the fold.

Duncan art pieces also brighten company facilities in Battle Creek, Michigan and Provo, Utah.

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The Duncans’ Lincoln residence

 

The most impressive receptacle for the art is the Duncan home on the outskirts of Lincoln. The classical structure designed by London-based architect Dimitri Porphyrios was built, per the Duncans’ express wishes, with permanency in mind through quarried stone and other durable materials. The eight-years-in-the-making project is a highly livable edifice that also functions as a gallery with museum-grade lighting, temperature controls and dedicated art spaces.

The house rests on gated property of nearly 40 acres studded with sculptures, including some monumental ones. The house may one day transition from their residence to a fully-dedicated museum. “We’re still talking about it,” Robert said. “We’ve got several options. We haven’t made that decision yet. We need to get busy and bring it to a conclusion.”

The couple keep homes in Mexico and Colorado as well.

Art has been a vital part of their lifestyle for decades but especially since Robert retired from Duncan Aviation 12 years ago. Travel and looking at art has dominated their lives since then.

Selecting a work may come down to a gut feeling, but there’s also research involved.

“I’m the reader of the two of us,” Karen said. “We get all these art magazines and I read them all. Robert’s on the phone talking to artists and planning where we’re going  next, which is as important as all the reading I do.”

The pair also comb art auction catalogues looking for potential buys. “We go through them in detail and mark the pieces we’re interested in or that are similar to pieces we have so we can do price comparisons,” he said. “Art shows are another great way to educate yourself because you see thousands of different pieces – many by artists you’ve never seen before.”

Once doing their due diligence, they plunge into major art markets, such as Art Basel Miami, an immersive, weeks-long exposure to countless works.

Staying abreast of trends, Karen said, “keeps you busy.” “India is one of our favorite destinations.” she added. The couple has traveled there four times. “This last trip to India,” she said. “we spent every day looking at art for three weeks.” They only took a break at the urging of a fellow traveler worried they were near exhaustion.

The intrepid couple will be off to Paris Photo at the Grand Palais in November.

They prefer traveling with others when possible.

“We are very good friends with Marc and Kathy LeBaron, who also collect contemporary art. We travel and do all kinds of art things together,” Karen said,

“They’re 10 years younger than we,” Robert said of the LeBarons, ” and they will say to this day we were their mentors.”

The Duncans acknowledge not everyone has the means to pursue their passion the way they do.

“We’re fortunate we have the time and the resources to travel,” Robert said.

Art networking leads to unexpected connections.

“We were introduced through a gallery to a sculptural collector in Cleveland,” Robert explained. “En route there Karen and I went to an art function we support in Chicago, where we met 50 artists. Then we went onto Cleveland to meet this guy, who has an incredible collection. He’s going to come out here and see our collection sometime and we’re going back to visit him again. Then we’re going to Yale University to view its collection and a new storage facility we want to see.

“It just goes on and on.”

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Karen’s children’s book, Chica

 

On one of the couple’s visits to Mexico Karen adopted a stray puppy she named Chica. The dog’s become such a fixture in their lives that she recently published a children’s book called “Chica.” Duncan wrote it and Omaha artist Joe Broghammer illustrated it.

Of all the couple’s myriad art activities, repurposing the former Carnegie library in Clarinda into a museum is “the most gratifying,” said Robert.

“We were both born and raised in Clarinda. We love it,” Karen said. “I practically lived in the library. I rode my bike there almost every day. So when that building came up for auction, it was ‘my’ building.”

The Duncans purchased it for $33,000 and spent much more renovating it. The museum opened in 2014. Thousands of people visit it every year.

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Clarinda Csrnegie Art Museum

 

Clarinda holds memories for the couple, including farm pond skinny dips. The former Karen Kent was a music prodigy. She’s a concert-level pianist. Robert applied his entrepreneurial innovation at Duncan Aviation.

“I’m more creative and imaginative than I am a professional manager,” he said. “A lot of the things Duncan has done were ideas for new businesses I created that really developed into major parts of the business. That’s one of the things I’m most proud of.”

His parents were adventurous enough to learn to fly. That led Donald Duncan to purchase surplus government aircraft and resale them. He became a Beechcraft, then Learjet distributor. That morphed into having the first Learjet authorized service center. Today, Duncan Aviation is a leader in the repair, maintenance, overhaul, refurbishing, painting of business-class jets.

Robert learned the business from the ground up.

“I pumped gas. I flew charters, I sold airplanes.”

Karen’s family, meanwhile, were not risk-takers. She doesn’t recall much adventure growing up.

“My parents worked all the time. We didn’t go anywhere. I wanted to go, I wanted to spread my wings. So I married this guy, and we did, didn’t we,” she said, nudging Robert.

“The thing I’m most grateful for,” said Robert, “is that we both have a sense of curiosity and …” “Fearlessness,” Karen said. It shows up in the wanderlust that’s seen them make cross-country treks by air and motorcycle – he’s a licensed small jet pilot and a Harley rider – and to follow their art quests to exotic locales.

“One of our first travels was to Spain.” Karen recalled. “It was there we went into the first gallery we’d ever been in together. We met the artist. He had a book with his art. We bought his book and a piece of his Spanish Impressionist art. I still kind of like it. I wouldn’t buy it today, but it’s not a bad painting.

“Robert hand-carried it home. That was our first piece and after that we hit the galleries and museums hard.”

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Duncan Aviation

 

Just as Duncan Aviation started small in a single office before growing to 2,000-plus employees at dozens of sites, the art collection began humbly and grew over time. Watching each evolve has been satisfying.

“In business we’ve really been opportunists,” Robert said. “All along we’ve taken advantage of opportunities and we’ve made good decisions. We’ve made some bad ones, too. You don’t hear about those, but they cost money and time. But all in all we’ve always been steps forward with perhaps one back.

“This is something pretty terrific we’ve put together. The team there now – led by our son Todd as chairman and Aaron Hilkemann as president – is taking the company to much greater levels than I did when I was there. What that means to me is that we have a great culture and great people. In the business we certainly learned to keep our eyes and ears open and look for opportunities, and we definitely do that in the art world now.”

Ever since they began collecting in earnest, the Duncans have made a point of meeting as many of the artists they patronize as possible.

“It personalizes our collecting,” Robert said. “It personalizes art,” added Karen.

Recently, an artist they visited in Mexico said something that resonated with them. “He told us.,you collect experiences,” Karen said, There’s a story behind every artist they meet. “In fact,” Robert said, “we’re seriously considering doing a book sharing the stories of our encounters with artists and our relationships with them.”

“Some of them are really worth reading.” Karen said.

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John Robert Weaver, self-portrait

 

Years ago they learned of a brilliant but sour Nebraska artist, John Robert Weaver, who’d completed a huge canvas and desperately needed a buyer for it.

“We bought it because it’s an amazing painting.” Karen said.

Thus began an association with the mercurial Weaver. who painted several commissions for the Duncans. Then he disappeared from their lives until Karen happened upon him one day in public.

“He looked as bad as that dog I picked up in Mexico,” she said. “I mean, he was in terrible shape – coughing, sick. He smelled.”

Then there was his abrasive personality.

“He was mean and rude. But he was a great painter. I thought, nobody’s going to care about him if he dies tomorrow, and we’ll have lost one of Nebraska’s best artists. I thought somebody needs to do something. So I bought him a house and furnished it and moved him in it. I took care of him for years and provided all the things he needed to work.”

The Duncans also funded the creation of a retrospective exhibition and catalog of his work and a feature-length documentary of his life. Weaver, who died in 2018, would likely have never enjoyed such recognition in his lifetime without their intervention.

More recently, the Duncans have fallen head over heals with the work of husband and wife artists Charley Friedman and Nancy Friedemann of Lincoln.

“We love the two of them,” Robert said.

Adopting artists “is Karen’s charity,” Robert said, adding, “She likes to do help individuals where she can see the impact.” She works with a Lincoln group that gives at-risk children piano lessons. She not only helps provide lessons but she’s purchased pianos for kids to practice on in their own homes.

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A sample of the Duncans’ sculpture garden

 

The couple’s patronage of Nebraska art is legendary. They’ve been major supporters of the Sheldon Museum of Art and the International Quilt Museum in Lincoln, the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art and the Kaneko in Omaha.

“We both love the University (of Nebraska’s) art department,” Robert said. “Great people there. We have a lot of respect for them.”  “We buy their art, too,” Karen said.

The couple are ambassadors for Nebraska art. “There’s so much in Nebraska,” Robert said. “It’s very rich.”

The Duncans gave California artist Joseph Goldyne a sample of the state’s visual art scene after he arrived for the opening of his exhibit in Clarinda.

“He was amazed,” said Karen. Such reactions are typical of artists who come here for the first time and expect a cultural wasteland. “They just underestimate us so much.”

Another expression of the couple’s generosity is their Duncan Family Trust, which supports education and aviation-related endeavors. Daughter-in-law Connie Duncan manages it.

“The company funds part of that and part is supported by funds we’ve set up at the Lincoln Community Foundation,” Robert explained. “People apply to it. The most important part of that is an employee scholarship fund.”

For all their good works and all the jobs created by Duncan Aviation, the thing that most intrigues people about the couple is the collection they’ve built. It’s a never-ending source of inquiries from scholars, collectors and journalists. Robert Duncan has a theory why he and Karen took it to so emphatically.

“I know that both of us have a collecting gene, We have collecting in our souls because as children we collected (her, butterflies; him. cereal box prizes). As adults, we collect a lot of things.”

Her first edition American novel collection numbers some 10,000 volumes. She has a large handwoven basket collection.

Her own literary efforts didn’t begin with the children’s book. She earlier authored “Pieces of Me,” a book meant only for her grandchildren. “It’s vignettes from my life. I wanted them to know I was once their age and i did some stupid things just like all teenagers do.”

“If I can get myself organized I’m thinking of doing a second Chica book about her Nebraska friends (the fox, raccoon and hawk Chica frolicked with on the property).

The collecting gene seems inherited by the Duncans’ two adult children, Todd and Paige.

“They have an interest and they both collect,” Robert said. “I don’t think they’re interested in shouldering the burden of this collection.”

“No,” added Karen. “Besides, they’ve got our art in their houses. We said, come pick out whatever you want, and they picked out good pieces. They grew up surrounded by it. They knew what to pick.”

As the collection’s grown ever larger, Karen said, “this has all gotten very complicated.” Thousands of works, multiple sites, plus storage, security, insurance details. They stay at it though because it’s still “fun.”

Collecting keeps them engaged with all the research and travel required. The 76-year-olds not only preach the benefits of mental and physical activity, they live it. He still rides motorcycles and pilots planes. She’s turned weight-lifting for exercise into competing in powerlifting meets. She’s also a gourmet cook and an expert at Ikebana (Japanese flower arranging).

Much like the work they collect, they are singular in their boundless curiosity. Mastering the art of living may be their greatest legacy.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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